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A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z


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1

Dry within, wet without, Hillier awoke. It was really very hot. He had lain down on his bunk in his old grey holiday Daks and a green sleeveless Luvisca shirt; now the shirt was soaked and the slacks felt clammy. He was also aware of the smell of himself. Adam had awakened to the scents of a garden; fallen Adam in his early forties was greeted, as a kind of smell-track to painful light, by tobacco-smoke woven into his skin and a vague effluvium of sour meat-juice, also like a space-traveller freely floating outside, but not too far outside, his capsule an ex-ternalisation of his own breath: burnt potato and tannery. Hillier got up, tasting his mouth and frowning. He should have switched on the electric fan. He did so now, stripping. The coolness exorcised that small bad dream he'd had the buffeting with rose-branches, the yelling crowd, his breathless crawling up a road that grew steadily hillier. That, of course, was a dream of his own name; the huge coil of rope he'd been carrying was explained by the name of his quarry. He should by rights have dreamed of new names a hunter and an island.

He surveyed himself naked in the dressing-table mirror. The body still looked as if it were for use, pretty lean. But he had the impression that it now wanted to sag under the stress of an adventurous past whose record was scored on the flesh-wound-scars, the pitting of an old disease. On his left flank was an indelible brand, a literal one. Soskice, who had eventually been smashed, dying cursing, had watched and grinned with all his blue and yellow teeth while the white-hot iron had been applied. 'S,' he had lisped. 'A signature on one of my lesser works, your body mangled, though not mangled to the pitch of unrecognis-ability.' Strapped to the chair, Hillier had tried to impose another meaning on the brand as, in its mirror-form, it slowly descended. His mother's name Sybil. That would do. Welcome it, welcome it, he had told his body as Soskice's executioner voluptuously delayed the searing impact. And then. Yearn to it, desire it, he had counselled his skin. It's a poultice, it's good for you. He had not screamed, feeling the intolerable bite, the pain itself S-shaped. The S had hissed into his very bowels, the sphincter weakest of all the muscles bidding them open to expel the snake whose body was all teeth. Soskice had been disgusted, but no more so than Hillier. 'I didn't mean that,' Hillier had moaned.'I apologise.'And they had left him for a time in his mess, delaying the consummation. And that delay had (oh, it was a long story bringing in a man called Kosciusko) saved his life. The S now stared back from the mirror, the reversed S of the brand itself. A spectacular thing to carry into retirement. Many a woman had commented on it, tracing the serpentine course, forward and back, in languid wonder after love. And in the languor of retirement Soskice and Brayne and Tarnhelm and Chirikov and Artsibashev would rest, the violent enemies, as fellow-heroes in a remote saga as flavoursome with nostalgia as a dog-eared school Virgil.

Hillier had not yet unpacked. AH he did now was to click open the shabbier of his two suitcases and take out from under his boxes and tins of cheap cigars Sumovana, Castaneda, Huifkar Imperiales an old rainbow bathrobe. He did not think it likely that anyone would enter his cabin while he was out taking a shower. Nevertheless he thought he had better find a hiding-place for his Aiken and its silencer, as well as for the box of PSTX ampoules. These latter were a new thing and he had not yet seen them in action. A subcutaneous injection was, so he had been told, immediately followed by drunken euphoria and great amenability. Then sleep came and, after sleep, no hangover. He looked round the cabin and hit on the lifebelt locker above the dressing-table. That would do for the time being. You could never tell, you could never be sure. The fiend is slee. His embarkation would have been noted; no disguise is totally deceptive. Before going for his shower, Hillier surveyed the new face he had given himself. Discreet padding had swollen the cheeks to an image of self-indulgence which his normal leanness hypocritically belied. The greying moustache, the greying hair rendered thinner, the contact lenses which made hazel eyes dark brown, the nose flared, the mouth pulled to a sneer these, he told himself, belonged not to Hillier but to Jagger, a typewriter technician on holiday. This was the penultimate disguise. And Roper's disguise? This was a great age for beards; nobody pulled beards any more or shouted 'Beaver'. Hillier packed the beard with the ampoules and the Aiken. The plump Edwardian mannekin on the yellowing card of lifebelt instructions pulled his strings tight, looking indifferently out at Hillier-Jagger as functional as a spy and as dehumanised.

Hillier went out on to the corridor. This'was A-Deck. A scent which reminded first-class passengers that they were paying extra for luxury breathed here, stroking the closed cabin-doors. No smell of engine-oil or galley cabbage, rather something rose-petalled and landlocked. Soft lights hid behind voluted plastic. Hillier locked his door, clasping the key in his bathrobe-pocket as he made for the bathroom. Suddenly the quiet of the corridor erupted into the noise of squabbling. A cabin-door three down from Hillier's own burst open, a boy emerged backwards, shouting. Oh God, groaned Hillier. Children. He didn't like children. They were too vigorous but also too honest, the enemies of intrigue. Besides, they got bored on voyages, they got in the way. This boy was about thirteen, an awkward age. *I only wanted to borrow it,' he was complaining. The accent was not patrician. 'I only wanted to see what it was about.'

'You're too young,' said a girl's voice. 'I'll tell dad. Go and have a nice game of quoits or something.'

'I bet I know more about it than you do,' said the boy. 'And I don't mean quoits.' He was small and compact and dressed like a miniature adult tourist Hawaiian shirt, tapering brown slacks, sandals, though no camera on his chest. He was also, Hillier noticed, smoking what smelt like a Balkan Sobranie Black Russian. And then, coming closer (he must pass the door to get to the bathroom), he saw the girl. At once, with a kind of groan of habituation, his body made its stock responses tightening of the larynx, minimal pain in the frenum, a shuddering re-stoking of the arteries, a sense of slight l'evitation. She was beautiful: corn-hair piled up carelessly, a nose like an idealisation of a broken boxer's, a mouth whose scolding ought at once to be stopped with kisses. She was in a straight gold dress, deep-cut; legs, arms, neck were bare, honeyed, superb. She was about eighteen. Hillier's groan came up like a dreaming dog's.

'And,' said the boy, 'dad wouldn't give a damn. Nor would she. Flat out they are, both of them. They're only interested in one thing.'

Me too, thought Hillier. He now saw what it was the boy wanted from his sister. A book by a certain Ralph Quintin, its title large: Sex and Patterns of Cruelty. Hillier was shocked. She should not be reading that, one so young and-Her eyes were large, blue pools after Eden's first rainfall. They looked on Hillier widely, then narrowed nastily at her brother. 'Dirty young pig,' she said.

'Pigs,' said the boy, 'are not dirty. A fallacy. Just like the one about goats smelling.' She slammed the door. Hillier said to the boy: 'Dirt is an inescapable part of the animal condition. That's why we take baths. That's why I'm going to the bathroom now. Unfortunately you're standing in my way.'

The boy stared up at Hillier and then, at the leisure appropriate to a holiday, moved, ending by flattening himself against the wall. 'You're new,' he said, puffing up Russian smoke. 'You've only just got on. We, on the other hand, are founder members. We got on at Southampton. It's all eating,' he told Hillier confidentially. 'They gorge themselves till they're sick. That's why some of them get off at Venice and totter back home overland. I hope you like it.'

'I'm sure I will.'

'I shouldn't try to make my sister, though. She's mad about sex, but it's all what D. H. Lawrence calls sex in the head. She just likes to read about it. Would you like one of these Black Russians?' From the breast pocket of his Hawaiian shirt he drew out a box, also a Cygnus butane lighter.

'I'm a cigar man,' said Hillier. 'Thanks all the same.'

'Try one of my Reservados after dinner,' said the boy. 'They've got some of this very special Remy Martin behind the bar. In a reproduction Louis XIV decanter. Nobody knows how old it is.'

'I look forward to that,' said Hillier. 'And now I must have my shower.'

'You do that,' said the boy. 'I dare say we'll be meeting again at the hour of the ap'eritif.'

Precocious young bastard, thought Hillier, as he went to the bathroom. Sex in the head, eh? Down, wantons, down. A passer-by hooted loudly from the blue Adriatic.

Hillier turned the knob of the bathroom door. He gaped at what he saw inside.

This was all too totally absurd. He had seen that fair beauty legitimately, clothed at her cabin door. Here, to balance that vision, was another, very dark, unclothed. She stood drying herself, a dusky Indian, her hair loose, a midnight river flowing to her buttocks.

'I'm terribly sorry,' gulped Hillier. 'The door wasn't-'

She already had the bath-towel about her, the ship's name _Polyolbion__ draping her as if she were its beauty-queen. She was less embarrassed than Hillier. Her face was that of a cool straight-nosed Aryan, though burnt to the richest coffee. 'No,' she said, 'the door wasn't. I'm often careless.' It was a kind of finishing-school English with a Welsh lilt. She coolly watched while Hillier let himself out. She seemed to do nothing about re-locking the door. Trembling, Hillier went for his shower. The voyage was beginning either well or badly, depending on which way you looked at things. He had come aboard stringently braced for action. He was already being seduced by flesh, the two extremes of the continuum as it were pegged out for him in a matter of minutes. He took his shower very cold, gasping, then strode back to his cabin looking straight before, inseducible.

The cabin door was open. Someone was singing inside, opening and closing dressing-table drawers. His suitcases were being rummaged. But a cheerful face, unabashed, turned to greet him. 'Mr Jagger would it be, sir? And how about the other gentleman?'

Hillier relaxed as he entered. Of course, the cabin steward. 'Could you,' he said, 'do something about getting me a drink? Whisky. I think-a whole bottle. And some ice.'

'And the other gentleman? Mr Innes?'

'Delayed. He's joining us at the next port.'

'Yarylyuk, that will be. A queer sort of a place.' He laid some of Hillier's shirts in a drawer, singing again.

'I suppose,' said Hillier, 'you'll want some money.' He had already hung his summer jacket in the wardrobe. He went to the wallet there.

'It's the usual thing, sir, as you'll know. A sweetener some people call it.' The tones were either of East London or of Sydney, really both, the sea really, two ends of the sea. Hillier paid out pound notes till the steward's hand ceased to be a table and became a clamp. 'Thank you, sir. Wriste, my name is. Wriste.'

'Wrist?'

'With an e at the end. A queer sort of a name you'd say. Most call me Rick or Ricky. That's short for Richard.' He was about thirty-five, dressed in blue denim trousers and a horizontal-striped singlet. His skin was well tanned and salted, the sumptuousness of line and shadow to be found on an inland Northern face thoroughly pickled out. This man had been long at sea. His eyes had a far-focused look. He was toothless but wore no dentures and, as if to point the fishiness of his mouth, he pouted when speaking, holding the pout when he'd finished, then letting the pout settle very gently to a normal spread. His thin dark brown hair seemed glued to his scalp. He wore well-fitting house-shoes of very expensive leather. 'Any particular brand, sir? We have this very good one, exclusive to the Line. Old Mortality it's called. Oh, by the way, sir, a letter for you. Came aboard at Venice, quite a lot of mail there was, you'd be surprised. But it's all business-men, you know, tycoons. They have to be kept informed.'

It was an official envelope, OHMS, correctly addressed to Sebastian Jagger, Esq.

'You'll want to read it, I suppose, sir. I'll go and get your Old Mortality.' Wriste went out singing. Hillier was aware of a strong thump of apprehension under his ribs.

What warning? What change of plan? He opened the letter. It was, as he'd expected, in code: ZZWM DDHGEM EH IJNZ OJNMU ODWI E XWI OVU ODVP Long, quite a long message. Hillier frowned. He had no means of breaking the code. Nothing had been said to him about the sending of messages after embarkation. He had neither book nor machine in his luggage. He looked again at the envelope. Inside, previously unnoticed by him, was the thinnest slip of paper, hardly bigger than a cracker motto. On it a rhyme had been typed: November goddess in your glory Swell the march of England's story.

And underneath a cheery message: Regards from all here. Hillier's pulse slowed in relief. It was nothing, then, after all. A facetious farewell from the Department, then, in code like every other letter he had received. A sort of crossword puzzle with cryptic clue. Something for his leisure, when he should have leisure.

When Wriste returned, bearing whisky and an ice-bowl, Hillier was already in evening shirt and black lightweight trousers. He had stowed the code message in the back pocket. Later, perhaps, he would 'We do dress tonight, do we?' he asked.

'Big ones for dressing, all of them,' said Wriste, 'even on the first night out. Want to convince themselves they're having a good time. And you should see the women.' His fish-lips pursed to a point to whistle one sad note. 'Plung ing necklines? You've no idea. No half-measures with this sort of lot, I'll say that. That's what I appreciate about the rich. Not always all that generous, though.' He was pouring a healthy slug of Old Mortality for Hillier, gold winking through caves of ice. Hillier noticed that there were two glasses on the tray. He motioned to Wriste to have one himself. Wriste took it as his due, cockily saying 'Cheers'.

The whisky was of a smoothness Hillier had forgotten existed. He poured himself another. A mood of quiet excitement came over him as he knotted his black tie: the evening ahead, plunging necklines, the smell of the rich. Wriste got on with the unpacking. 'Although,' he said, 'the couple in here was very generous. To me, that is. Got off at Venice, motoring down the East Coast. Ravenna, Rimini, Ancona, Pescara, Bari, Brindisi. Then into somebody's yacht there. A nice sort of a life. Every day there was a dozen of Guinness paid for for me and my mate. He's a winger in the First Class.'

'I should be honoured,' said Hillier, 'if you would-'

'I expected no less of you, sir,' said Wriste. 'Me and Harry will be proud to drink your health every night. On holiday in Venice, was you, sir?'

'Business,' said Hillier. He might as well try out his new persona before getting on-stage. 'I design typewriters.'

'Do you really, sir?' Wriste hushed his voice as if more impressed than by any other revelation he'd ever heard in this cabin. 'I suppose you've been doing a bit of work for the Olivetti people.'

Careful, careful. 'Hardly in Venice,' said Hillier.

'Of course not, sir. But it's funny that that should be your line. I have a sister who's a secretary, and she was called in on one of these surveys. They'd brought out this typewriter with different-sized letters like in ordinary printing. Which I know a bit about, having worked on a ship's printing press, but not on this ship. You know, an em twice as big as an en. You know, a fat o and a thin i. Well, they thought a lot of her opinion. You, of course, being in the game, would know what her objection was.' Wriste waited, poising a wad of handkerchiefs above a drawer.

'Correction is very difficult,' said Hillier, 'if you don't have a uniform-sized type. In fact, you just daren't make a typing error at all. That sort of thing would drive a typist mad.'

'That's it,' nodded Wriste. 'You've got it.' He displayed to Hillier pink toothless gums. 'And now, sir, what can I do for you?' It was as though Hillier had come through a test, which indeed he had. Wriste shut the handkerchief drawer and came closer. 'Anything about seating arrangements in the dining-saloon, for instance?'

Hillier weighed in his head the light and the dark. 'There's a girl along here,' he said. And then, 'No.'

'If it's who you're thinking of,' said Wriste, 'I understand your point. A forward little sod, that brother of hers is. Big money there, though. The old man's Walters, the big flour man. I get the idea that his missis, younger than he is she is, she wants to see him off. Forcing second helpings on him all the time. Those two kids are by his first marriage. The lad, Alan his name is, was on one of these TV quizzes in the States. Knows it all, they reckon. You keep away from there. Drive you cracked he will.'

'There's an Indian lady,' said Hillier.

'Not moving very far afield, are you, sir?' said Wriste. 'You could bust your G-string on this vessel. Crying out for it a lot are. Neglected wives. Still, keep it on the corridor by all means. Less far to go. You're thinking of Miss Devi. Sort of secretary she is to this big fat foreign tycoon. Mr Theodorescu. Speaks lovely English he does, though, Oxfordeducated I should imagine. At least she's called his secretary. See how much she knows about typewriters.' Wriste thought a moment, eyes down. 'It means fixing things in the purser's office. I'll have to be quick. A few quid should do it.' Sighing, Hillier handed over a five-pound note. He would not be able to live like this in his retirement. 'But,' said Wriste with great sincerity, 'if there's anything at all I can do anything you've only got to ask.'


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